When it comes to the artwork of Joseph Arthur, there has always been a sense of urgency and living in the now. Joseph Arthur doesn’t make art because he wants to; art uses Joseph Arthur as a conduit to express itself. Much like his paintings, the massive recorded output (over twenty EP’s and LP’s to date) released by Arthur since 1996 are more often than not representations of energy and matter at any particular moment in time. You can watch Arthur perform live 10 nights in a row, and the same song will be radically different each and every night. Knowing this about Arthur is what makes The Ballad Of Boogie Christ a true masterpiece as the artist documents his struggle with addiction, redemption and recovery by finally managing to triumph over the art that chooses to channel through him.
As Arthur shared in the video to launch his highly successful Pledge Campaign, The Ballad of Boogie Christ is a psychedelic soul record about redemption and what happens after you find it and lose it. In addition to guest spots from Ben Harper, Joan Wasser and more, the concept album features Arthur relying less on his signature guitar loops and focusing more on soul singers and massive horn arrangements. The result is Arthur’s most ambitious and focused work in over a decade.
Things kick off in fifth gear with the sophisticated sounds of The Currency of Love. With a background of horns, pianos and drums, the swinging sounds paired with Arthur’s sultry yet vulnerable vocals are a major departure for an artist who has never allowed genres and expectations trap him in an easily marketable corner. It is a grand entrance that sets the mood for the next 50 minutes to play out on Arthur’s terms.
The album’s second song, Saint of Impossible Causes, immediately sweeps you into an opposite direction from that which The Currency of Love set you off in. Arthur manages to blend lush mandolin with Postal Service worthy beats, while the lyrics preach the importance of music saving us from our pitfalls. Saint of Impossible Causes is more than just a song; it is a battle cry that makes even the weakest souls feel as if they can overcome whatever it is that keeps them down.
It’s not until the album’s title track that we first hear any form of noticeable guitar work. Sure to upset your Grandparents, The Ballad of Boogie Christ is a brave and brutally honest tale of who Jesus Christ would be in modern times. Where the thought of Christ tossing salad can be interpreted in numerous ways, there is an ounce of truth that the man who hung with hookers and changed water to wine some 2,000 years ago would no doubt enjoy hip hop, metal, and pizza.
The upbeat tempos of The Ballad of Boogie Christ gives way to the dark, swampy blues of I Used To Know How To Walk On Water. The song begins in a similar musical style to past Arthur songs Eyes On My Back and A Smile That Explodes before gradually evolving into a chorus that feels uplifting and hopeful. I Used To Know How To Walk On Water has a truly bi-polar feeling as confident statements gives way to emotional appeals for forgiveness. On the final run through of the chorus to close out the song, Arthur’s Fistful of Mercy bandmate Ben Harper joins in on the madness using his passionate vocals to add an explanation point to the powerful statement.
Tested and tweaked upon stage for years, the meandering poem I Miss The Zoo has finally found its way onto an official studio recording. Deeply introspective and incredibly personal, the fast pace delivery of words over an ever building sea of sounds featured on I Miss The Zoo leaves Arthur naked and vulnerable longing for the years of his life when he was not on the good end of battling against the disease of addiction. Arthur paints a twisted canvas of memories by using imagery of evolving into a cloud of blue marijuana and spiders lifting his bed that sends even the most innocent of listeners into the mindset of someone who has accepted that they can no longer lose the battle to substance abuse.
Now that the struggle of Boogie Christ has you feeling down, Arthur uses the track It’s OK To Be Young/Gone to pick things up. Featuring sounds of toy pianos over lush acoustic strumming that eventually gives way to thick walls of meaty distortion; It’s OK To Be Young/Gone is a simple pop song in the truest form and the placement is the perfect safeguard from forcing your head under into the woeful sea of darkness and sorrow.
Perhaps the most blatant moment of psychedelic soul is found on Black Flowers. With a bass line that truly brings the boogie, Black Flowers gives a false sense of hope as upbeat music is met with rapid fire lyrics focused on not being able to change and escape our own fate. As with most of the tracks on The Ballad Of Boogie Christ, the music created by Arthur is perfectly designed. Each instrument knows when to come in, when to be heard and never steps on the toes of another. Horn blasts are short but sweet, drums know exactly when to step up and take the lead and once again Arthur’s vocals end up as some of the richest of his lengthy career.
Where Arthur takes great leaps in studio exploration with exciting use of horns, keys, and additional vocalists on The Ballad of Boogie Christ, the album comes to a close with two road tested folk warriors that features the Arthur back in his natural skin. Great melodies are abundant on Famous Friends Along The Coast as Arthur’s acoustic guitar leads pump organs and lush backing vocals into a feel-good frenzy before finally fading away into horn-heavy bliss. Once the harmony comes crashing to an end, so does the album with the upbeat seven minute epic All The Old Heroes. Once again focused around one acoustic guitar and haunting vocals, the songs slowly builds from a folk song into a massive inferno of melodies, instrumentation and triumph before finally closing and leaving things on as high of a note as the album started off with.
By simply releasing The Ballad of Boogie Christ after years of work, Arthur has managed to win the battle of focus over instant gratification, and it shows. This is not fast food from a factory farm, every riff and melody is home grown and fine tuned into a four star, twelve course feast fit for a king. The album has taken everything Arthur has to offer and puts it out on the table. While it would be careless to pretend to know how much of Boogie Christ’s struggle is fictional and how much is personal, with these twelve tracks Arthur has made the soundtrack for the moment you finally overcome whatever obstacle life puts in your path. No matter how hard the journey and the struggle may be, Arthur has made the perfect musical roadmap to get you safely through to the other side.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.